Henry de Hane Segrave took just 30 minutes to obliterate the previous land speed record and become the first driver to hit 200mph.Bill Boddy describes the least troubled record ever
You have to go back 74 years for the first officially timed 200mph by a car. These days this pace is not uncommon, and even our trains manage 180mph when not colliding or leaving the rails. But in 1927 it was a great achievement, for Major (later Sir) Henry O’Neal de Hane Segrave, as driver, and for the devastatingly unconventional ‘1000hp’ twin-engined Sunbeam designed by Louis Coatalen.
Segrave had turned to motor racing after World War I, in which he had flown DH2 and FE8 aeroplanes and been invalided out. He joined the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq team in 1921 and gained many worthwhile successes, including being the first British driver to win the French Grand Prix (in 1923 with a Sunbeam) — he was a naturalised Briton, although born in Baltimore of American parents — and the 1924 San Sebastian GP, also in a Sunbeam. When Sunbeam of Wolverhampton took the Land Speed Record to 152.33mph at Southport with a 4-litre model, Segrave was the driver, and by 1927 he had suggested to Louis Herve Coatalen, Chief Engineer at Sunbeam’s, that breaking the 200mph barrier would be good publicity.
Coatalen designed the car and handed it over for completion to Capt J S Irving, Chief of Sunbeam’s Experimental Department. Sponsorship had been forthcoming firm Charles Cheers (later Lord) Wakefield of Castrol Oil, who was so very willing to aid such ventures on land, water and in the air, Dunlop, BP, TB Andre, and David Moseley, makers of pneumatic upholstery. Since 1926 Segrave had virtually quit driving for the SID combine, so he now had to finance some of the cost of the 200mph bid himself, including getting the enormous car to America.
It was a most unusual monster. Coatalen was aware Sunbeam’s shareholders were not all so enthusiastic, and this encouraged him to economise and use up components in the racing shop whenever possible. So once he had decided Segrave could regain the record with only a 4-litre Sunbeam, he took two cylinder blocks from a 1924 GP car, canted them at 75 degrees on a new crankcase and put the engine in a chassis not differing greatly from that of their GP cars.
The LSR at this time belonged to Capt (later Sir) Malcolm Campbell at 174.883mph, and Coatalen knew greater power was needed to overcome wind resistance at an even higher speed. He then recalled how two 435hp V12 Sunbeam Matabele aero-engines had been sent back to Wolverhampton having been salvaged from the 80mph racing motor-boat ‘Maple Leaf VII’.
He ordered these be readied for installation in the giant Sunbeam. They were too bulky to be accommodated side-by-side, so Coatalen put one in front and one behind the cockpit of his latest LSR car. The chassis was a quite simple affair, with half-elliptic springs front and back. Standing up to nearly 900hp might have stressed a normal back axle, so Coatalen used final drive by chains and sprockets, despite all Sunbeam racing cars since 1910 having employed shaft drive.
So the ‘200’ Sunbeam took form at the Wolverhampton Moorfield factory. The two 60-degree V12 four-ohc 120x160mm engines between them gave a capacity of 44,888cc, had 96 valves, 48 KLG sparking-plugs, eight BTH magnetos, four Claudel Hobson carburettors and three radiators. The car, 23 1/2ft long, had an all-enveloping body tested in Vickers’ wind tunnel, and was geared to do 74, 139 and 212mph on its three speeds. It weighed 3 tons 16 cwt and consumed a gallon per minute.
Had Segrave thought it possible to extend the car on a British beach, sponsors might have been more generous. But Southport and Pendine were unsuitable, as he would require 4 1/2 miles of run-in to the timed kilometre, mile and five kilometre distances and a further 4 1/2 miles in which to pull up. He opted for the 20 mile beach at Daytona, USA.
On the Moorfields test-rig, the car made the whole building shake, the wheels were semi-visible discs, the chains became red hot. The roar from the 24 exhaust stubs was shattering, yet this was not on full power. De Hane admitted: “It was a little unnerving that I was to drive it, control it, unleash all its potentialities.”
Although the terms overand understeer had not been much spoken of then, Segrave must have thought, with one big engine behind him, that oversteer might occur and that if the car went truly broadside on, it could well roll over. So he went to see Sir George Beharrell, head of Dunlop, to ask what they could do. The reply a few months later was that special tyres had been made and exhaustively tested on a rotary speed-rig and that Dunlop could guarantee them safe for 3 1/2 minutes at 200mph. De Hane estimated he would cover the timed mile in 17 1/2sec; double this, and add one to one-and-a-half minutes for the run in and pull-up, and he was content change of tyres was in fact made between the two-way runs.
The tyres Dunlop had produced, run at 60lb/sq.in, had the then-usual 10-ply cotton casings on 35×6 wire wheels, each weighing 98.5lbs and turning at 1895 times a minute at 200mph. Each tyre’s contact area was 19sq in. It is interesting to note that the Sunbeam had lift at the front of the body to produce downthrust at the rear. The remarkable thing is that, apart from a 300-yard run on factory roads, the ‘200’ Sunbeam was crated and sent to Daytona.
Segrave sailed on the Cunard Line’s Berengaria with K Lee Guinness, Lord Rossmore, Norman Freeman of Dunlop and eight mechanics. With them went the Sunbeam in its eight-ton crate, 18 crates of spares, three crates of tyres and a 3litre twin-cam Sunbeam 1926 Show car.
On the way over Segrave was told of Thomas’s fatal accident, then attributed to a chain breakage on ‘Babs’, so although the Sunbeam’s chains, capable of 1 1/2 tons pull, were shielded, their condition and tension were carefully inspected.
Surprisingly, little had to be done in practice at Daytona, in spite of the lack of testing in England. Lower-geared steering and lined rear brake shoes for the Dewandre servo 4WBs were needed after the rear aluminium shoes had melted completely after a fast trial run. Steps were taken to reduce wind pressure in the cockpit, after Segrave’s helmet had torn through three holes of its strap and his vision had been impaired by blowing sand. Overheating of the rear engine had to be cured and gear selectors altered. Segrave had received a great welcome, and help from everyone in America concerned with the record attempt, including the AAA whose officials had provided the AIACR (now FIA) with details of their timing apparatus, so that world recognition could be given to any records timed by them.
It was now up to Segrave. After he had set FTD in the 4-litre V12 Sunbeam in the previous year’s Boulogne speed trials, at 140.6mph, he had confessed to having been frightened in a racing car for the first time in his life, as the car leapt and slid along the 6km undulating narrow course. Now he had to keep a straight course at over 200mph, with eight magneto switches, six oil gauges, four rev-counters, three water temperature gauges and a master ignition-switch to think about. The rear Matabele engine was started with compressed-air bottles and Segrave then used a lever-operated plate clutch to turn over and start the front Matabele. A multiplate clutch then got him away, and he then changed up on the normal 3-speed gearbox.
Enormous crowds were there on March 29, 1927 to see the record-bid. Everything went well, apart from a couple of incidents on the first run. The first came when the Sunbeam slid off course for 400 yards and cut down some marker-posts. At the end of that run it failed to slow as quickly as Segrave had expected; to avoid the sandbanks or Hudson River he steered towards the sea, and in the shallow waves he got down to 50mph, and swung the car round. At the depot, as a precaution, the wheels were changed. The return run commenced well within the stipulated official time and 200mph had been convincingly achieved, with so very little fuss. After a total of half an hour it was all over.
The records were 203.792mph for the two-way mile, 202.988mph for the kilometre, 202.675mph for the 5km. Not only had history been made, but the name ‘Sunbeam’ had been well publicised the world over. The company reckoned it had cost them £5400 to build the car, and the sports 3-litre had been sold to a keen American buyer. De Hane Segrave had spent a lot of money getting the entourage to the USA, and deserved his subsequent knighthood, in 1929. Afterwards he concentrated on the Water Speed record, and was fatally injured in 1930 at Lake Windermere with the WSR raised to 98.76mph. He was buried at Golden Green.
Somewhere I have an old cardboard box containing a clockwork tinplate version of the Sunbeam; the real thing can be found at the National Motor Museum, Beaulieu.